Social Science Selling

September 27, 2006

There are times when I just hate being a social scientist. Especially when I get a rejected paper, and my selling is at fault (which is often). This is not to say that I write terrific, deep theoretical papers with perfect empirics that would change the world if only I could sell them well enough to get someone to read the full paper. But it is annoying when the referee did not see the neat stuff in the paper because I was too obtuse to realize that my writing was more of a conversation with myself, not for someone new to the ideas in the paper. So, in short, I write badly, as I am frequently told by my co-authors.

There is a reason for this which is simple. I do not write papers only to see my name in print – I write them to learn something new. After enjoying the process of digging into the problem, doing the math, writing neat program code, seeing the results, I am done – the learning is over. As I am told, at this point, I am 20% done, and there is the big 80% left, the writing bit. There is something in my brain that does not get this – I am in denial that in the social sciences, the story is almost everything. To me those first drafts bear a haughty air of finality, attracting rejections like moths to a flame!

Now, I am aware that in the hard sciences, writing is important, but there, the story is not everything. In math, if you prove a new theorem, the paper is home, as long as you write clearly. It is not a function of the “story” – and not a matter of taste, or a function of whether the readership will be receptive. In the social sciences, you can reject papers on taste – which means the referee (or more usually the editor) did not feel good about it. If I had a dollar for every paper rejected on grounds of taste or readership by an editor with no expertise in the area, overriding a referee with plenty of knowledge, then I would be pretty rich already. But thats the way it is.

The catch is that you need to have a good story, but not such a good one that the referee can find a reason to reject. So there is a fine line that needs to be tread. Sell the paper with a good story and also sterilize it sufficiently so that it cannot be rejected. Not everyone is good at this, and certainly not me.

Theoreticians are clearly at a disadvantage many times. The key ideas in some papers lie in the beauty of the mathematics, which takes work and training on the part of the referee to see. Knowing this, you spend a lot of verbiage explaining things for the average referee who needs the hand-holding. What you end up doing then is writing a little bit too much – its that extra rope that then hangs you. Something in there becomes the raison de rejection. In my field (finance), there is a classic rejection line which I receive often, as I am told that the paper is mere “engineering” – relegating it to the stuff of the hard sciences, intruding on the pure turf of economics, and clearly unbecoming of the readership! In the social sciences, this is worse than a bad paper – and one is told off off in no uncertain terms that the foreign material should be banished at once.

If you need a diagnostic as to which fields the story matters more than the analysis, here is a good one. The average length of papers is directly proportional to the importance of story-telling in the field. Why is it that in the hard sciences, the average paper is about ten pages? Whereas in the social sciences, it is strictly more on average than that. I am pretty sure that almost all papers in the social sciences could be cut down to ten pages with little loss of content or impact. The fact that the average length of paper is increasing off late highlights the growing role of spin in the publication process.

I am now trying very hard to write short papers in my field. I plan to stick with this for a while just to see how much I can get away with. Clearly remaining within a ten page limit will be hard, and without a story, I may see loads of rejections. But life will be good, keeping it simple, and hopefully, not leaving loose ends to hang myself. I might even write better! And to be credible about this, I will stop here.